Free agency ain't what it used to be. While the top stars on this winter's market will still ink contracts that guarantee them astronomical amounts of money over the next several years, the trend toward teams signing their best players to long-term extensions before they hit free agency has reduced the supply of frontline talent available in a given offseason. That changes the extent to which a team can whip out its checkbook to undertake a turnaround, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, given that free agents tend not to be very solid investments. A study I did back in May on the top free agents following the 2007-11 seasons found that their value (in terms of Wins Above Replacement) dropped 43 percent from their walk year to their first year in new surroundings.
What follows here is a look at the best player or players at each position who could have been free agents this winter but aren't. Most of these players signed multiyear extensions that prevented them from reaching free agency, though some simply had their stays with their current teams extended via options. I'll be back later with a post that provides a side-by-side comparison from these players to those at their position who actually are on this year's open market.
In a market where the top pitchers have inconsistent track records (Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana) or no stateside experience (Masahiro Tanaka), the 32-year-old Wainwright would stand to reap a windfall. While the five-year, $97.5 million extension that he signed in March and kicks in next season is hardly chump change, this year's return to ace status would have justified a spot on the $23-$25 million per year tier currently occupied only by Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander.
Boston's Jon Lester would also have been poised to cash in after a detour in the wilderness that ran from late 2011 until the middle of 2013. His strong second half and stellar postseason this year may not have catapulted him into the aforementioned stratosphere, but the 29-year-old lefty likely would approach the $20 million per year level had the Sox not picked up his $13 million option.
Coming off less optimal seasons, Johnny Cueto and Yovani Gallardo would have probably still landed on the Garza/Jimenz/Santana tier — and well above Ricky Nolaso — if not for extensions that are keeping them in Cincinnati and Milwaukee, respectively. Cueto made just 11 starts due to a lat strain and still has just one 200-inning season to his credit; he's on a four-year, $27.5 million extension signed through 2014, with an additional club option for 2015. Gallardo is coming off career worsts in ERA (4.18) and strikeout rate (7.2 per nine); he's on a five-year, $30.1 million extension through 2014, with a club option for 2015.
Finally, the market is without two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, who signed a two-year, $35 million extension with the Giants in October before he could test free agency. He might have netted a longer deal had he done so, but coming off a 4.37 ERA this year and a 4.76 mark over the past two years, there's almost no way he would have topped that average annual value.
Remember that three-year, $35 million deal Soriano signed with the Yankees in January 2011? Had he not exercised the first of two opt-out clauses last winter, he'd be a free agent now instead of halfway through a two-year, $28 million deal he signed with the Nationals back in January. Given his subpar season (3.11 ERA, 6.9 K/9), he may be better off, though it's worth noting a certain pinstriped team has an opening at closer due to a certain player's retirement.
Meanwhile, Twins lefty Glenn Perkins has definitely earned something well beyond his current three-year, $10.3 million deal through 2015, even if his $4.5 million club option for 2016 is factored in. When he signed that contract in March 2012, he was coming off his first solid year as a reliever, and had all of two career saves under his belt. Since then, he's posted a 2.44 ERA with 10.5 strikeouts per nine and 52 saves, numbers that would make him one of the winter's most desirable closers.
In a market teeming with free agent catchers of various price points -- Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Carlos Ruiz, A.J. Pierzynski, Jose Molina, Kurt Suzuki and more -- it's difficult to find a decent one who would have joined them this winter if not for an extension. The closest qualifier is the 30-year-old Iannetta, currently covered by a three-year, $15.55 million extension signed in October 2012. That deal essentially incorporated a $5.05 million option for 2013, one that converted from a club option to a mutual one with his 2011 trade from Colorado.
First base: Joey Votto, Reds
The 30-year-old four-time All-Star would have hit the market this winter as the most desirable free agent this side of Robinson Cano had he not signed a 10-year, $225 million extension with the Reds back in April 2012. That's the fifth-largest contract in baseball history, and the largest ever signed by a non-free agent. The real surprise is that it came from a small-market team; imagine what a big spender might have paid.
Despite his advancing age (35 in December) and history of recent injuries, Utley was certain to receive fair bit of interest this winter thanks to his track record as a two-way star as well as his biggest season since 2009 in terms of playing time (131 games) and home runs (18). Despite a flurry of interest in trading for him at the July 31 deadline, the Phillies held onto him, and in early August he agreed to a two-year, $27 million deal that adds three vesting options which become guaranteed with 500 plate appearances and factor in time spent on the disabled list. All told, the deal could be worth $75 million.
He's not the only well-regarded second baseman who missed hitting the market this winter, either. Had he not signed his five-year, $75 million extension in April 2012, Ian Kinsler would have had a $10 million club option for 2013 picked up by the Rangers at the end of his previous five-year deal and would currently be shopping his services. Meanwhile, Ben Zobrist's $7 million club option for 2014 was a no-brainer for Tampa Bay to pick up, and he's got another one coming (at $7.5 million) next winter.
Whether or not Cabrera's subpar 2013 (.242/.299/.402, 1.2 WAR) owes something to the quad strain that knocked him out for three weeks in June, his situation exemplifies the safety net provided by even a short extension such as the two-year, $16.5 million one he signed in April 2012, which bought out his first year of free agency. Instead of hitting the market on a bum note after making $6.5 million, he'll earn $10 million next year while having a chance to show that he's closer to the player who hit a combined .272/.335/.443 in 2011-12 while producing 8.1 WAR .
The White Sox' Alexei Ramirez would face even greater consequences along those lines coming off a two-year stretch in which he's hit .275/.301/.372, albeit with strong enough defense to produce 5.3 WAR in that span. Instead, he's still got two years and $20.5 million remaining on the four-year, $32.5 million contract he signed in February 2011.
Third base: David Wright, Mets
Had he not signed an eight-year, $138 million extension last November, Wright would have played this past season on the $16 million club option tacked onto the six-year, $55 million deal he signed in August 2006. Instead, he cut the financially beleaguered franchise a break on both the short- and long-term fronts, taking a lower 2013 salary ($11 million), tapering from a peak of $20 million to "only" a combined $27 million over the deal's final two years, and additionally deferring $15.5 million along the way.
Of lesser magnitude, but still notable: Arizona's Martin Prado would be a first-time free agent had he not signed a four-year, $40 million deal last January. His ability to play third base, second base and the outfield would have guaranteed him no shortage of suitors, likely including the big-spending Dodgers, who have openings at both infield positions.
A good deal of the outrage over Braun's 65-game suspension for his involvement with the Biogenesis clinic comes from the fact that it doesn't affect the status of either the eight-year, $45 million deal he signed with the Brewers in May 2008 or the $105 million extension he signed in 2011 that covers his 2016-20 seasons. Without the first of those pacts, he'd be hitting the market for the first time at age 29 (30 next week) with a career line of .312/.374/.564 and 211 homers but a whole lot of ill will due to that suspension. Still, the bet here is that he'd do far better than the two-year, $16 million deal Melky Cabrera, who was also coming off a PED-related suspension, signed last winter.
On a far less controversial alternate timeline, Alex Gordon would be a free agent this winter if not for his four-year, $37.5 million deal he signed with the Royals in March 2012, one that includes a $12.5 million player option for 2016. Gordon's offense fell off significantly from last year, as he hit just .265/.327/.422, but thanks to legitimately strong defense, he was still worth 4.2 WAR and has averaged 6.0 WAR over the last three years, roughly twice the value of marquee free agent Shin-Soo Choo in that span (3.1 per year).
Centerfield: Carlos Gomez, Brewers
Count me among those who were skeptical of the three-year, $24 million extension Gomez signed back in March; I didn't think his first season of double-digit homers and an OPS above .680 merited a big investment, particularly a year ahead of schedule (it runs from 2014-16). Now it looks as though the Brewers got an outright steal, as they own the age 28-30 seasons of a player who led the league in WAR (8.4) in 2013 thanks to even further improvements at the plate (.284/.338/.506 with 24 homers and 40 steals, all career highs) backed with award-winning defense. Gomez might have received a deal three times that value if he were reaching free agency this winter.
Gomez's companion Gold Glove winner in the AL, Baltimore's Adam Jones, likely would have surpassed the six-year, $85 million extension he signed in May 2012, even though there's far less headroom to do so. Coming off an age-27 season with his third All-Star appearance and career highs in both home runs (33) and RBIs (108), he likely would have reached the $100 million plateau even with the questions about his plate discipline (4.4 percent walk rate) and defense (-30 DRS over the last four seasons, damn the hardware) beginning to pile up.
By now the Braves wish they could revoke the five-year, $75.25 million deal they gave B.J. Upton and instead apply it to the six-year, $51.25 million extension his younger brother signed with the Diamondbacks in March 2010, a deal that runs through 2015. While the younger Upton's 2013 season was not his best (.263/.354/.464 with 27 homers and 2.6 WAR), it's nonetheless a rarity for a 26-year-old star to reach free agency. It's not hard to imagine the Yankees breaking the bank to throw Carl Crawford money (seven years, $142 million) at a player who may just be entering his prime in an effort to offset their aging roster. If not the Yankees, a team such as the Mariners would have at least gone well into nine-digit territory.
Meanwhile, it's less clear that Hunter Pence would have exceeded the five-year, $90 million extension he signed with the Giants in late September had he waited another six weeks to reach free agency. That said, setting a career high in homers (27) and WAR (4.1) while putting up strong across-the-board numbers (.283/.339/.483) in a tough hitting environment is no small feat. Pence, a 30-year-old righthanded hitter, would provide a more power-oriented alternative to Choo, a lefty who could hold his own against pitchers of either hand.
Designated hitter: Billy Butler, Royals
As a full-time DH, Butler has his limitations, and coming off a career-low slugging percentage (.412), teams might be a bit more wary of him than they otherwise would. Even so, a 27-year-old hitter with a career line of .298/.364/.459 and an average of 160 games played over the past five seasons wouldn't go unloved in this market. Another possibility here is Adam Lind. Coming off his first good season (.288/.357/.497 with 23 homers) since 2009 — one in which he actually played first base more often than DH — the 30-year-old Lind would certainly do better than the $7 million option that the Blue Jays exercised, the first of three club options tacked onto his five-year, $23.4 million deal.